Wind In The Willows is a difficult story to adapt. The glossy new musical production playing at the Palladium has mostly succeeded, but there are a few very important challenges.
Wind In The Willows, as a piece of theatre, presents as a series of cameos, much in the same way that Cats does; a series of characters stepping forward, introducing themselves, and singing and dancing their way into the sketchy play. The lack of any real drama, or plot, will not bother the children in the audience. To describe this outing as a “wild tale about the thrill-seeking, anarchic Mr Toad” is an over-promise. Nevertheless, there is meat on this bone.
Is this a children’s musical? Yes, and a very good one. But, if the writers and producers have attempted the almost impossible task of creating a musical that appeals to both children and adults, then they have largely failed. The many children in the theatre were engaged and enjoyed the show, but I was a little bored. The show is a little long.
While Julian Fellowes is undeniably a fine screen writer, his book for Wind In The Willows, and also the one for School Of Rock for that matter, is patchy and seems somehow ‘oldhat’; relationships seem under-developed and roles like Mrs Otter (played amiably by Denise Welch) seem woefully underwritten. Rachel Kavanaugh as director has brought much of the story of this musical to life, with confidence, great precision and a light touch, not needing to rely on too much choreography.
According to the theatre marquee Rufus Hound is the star of the show but I must disagree. The stand out performances are Simon Lipkin as Ratty, along with Craig Mather as Mole, set the play up in an effective, believable, playful and touching opening sequence. Simon’s disciplined energy, great vocals and charming stage presence are first rate. Craig’s Mole is all charm and warmth. It leaves you wanting to Mess About In A Boat about with these two well drawn characters all day long; very touching and incredibly likeable.
Peter McKintosh’s design, particularly his costumes, are simple and delightful to look at. Many of the actions of the story are very well served by the designs but nearly all of the action happens downstage centre, dominated by the endless sweep of the proscenium. In many ways the show resembles a pop-up book that is sadly swamped by the size of the theatre.
Wind In The Willows is all about the characters, such as Gary Wilmot’s very warm and important Badger. We want to see them up close and feel like we can almost touch them, and through the magic of theatre, somehow enter their world. This is almost impossible in London’s Palladium. Neil McDermott, is a very greasy and nasty Chief Weasel (what a great name for a character!), and in the We’re Taking Over The Hall sequence, the talented ensemble do what they can to break out the moves and reach out over the huge expanse of the theatre.
Stiles and Drewe’s musical adaptation of Wind In The Willows is impressive, with few exceptions. The prologue Spring seemed to have been a cast off from Les Miserables; Christopher Jahnke’s orchestrations seem very derivative at times, and importantly, they lack an orchestral language suited to the this ‘other world’ setting. Spring in particular was weighed down by the wrong orchestration in what otherwise is an effective and moody opening.
The score includes many highlights such as The Amazing Mister Toad and A Friend Is Still A Friend, among others. One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make also stands out as a truly charming moment when the swallows grace the stage as flight attendants. When Toad makes his ubiquitous entrance through the roof of the theatre, at the conclusion of the story, I felt compelled to call out “he’s over there” as the cast jumped into something like a ‘Megamix’ routine. To be fair, it was the only time this version of Wind In The Willows slipped into ‘Panto Land’.
If you have children, take them to see Wind In The Willows, they will be as enthralled as the many children I sat with to watch this impressive production, that although it has flaws, should go a fair way to warrant the hefty West End ticket price.